Hanover County was officially formed by the Virginia General Assembly on November 26, 1720, through an act dividing New Kent County. It was named in honor of King George I of England, who, at the time of his coronation, was Elector of Hannover in Germany.
77 22' 03" Latitude, 37 43' 05" Longitude. These are the geological coordinates of a very special place, a gently rising slope of land on a busy highway in Hanover County, Virginia. Once a narrow, dusty path that led Pamunkey Indians to their favorite fishing streams, it later became a well-traveled stage route from Richmond to Fredericksburg.
Place yourself, in your mind's eye, at this place. You now stand in the historic district of Hanover Courthouse; the county seat of a community whose members, through three centuries, greatly influenced the history of America. To get your bearings, look to the right. There, at the far end of an expansive court green is the old courthouse building, its arcade fronted by five distinctive, arched bays. Nearby stands an accompanying clerk's office. At their left, in stark contrast to their warm terra cotta hue, is a crude, slate-gray jail made of stone. Heavily studded double doors mark the only entrance, the outermost made of thick iron bars.
At the middle of the green is a granite obelisk, nearly as tall as the neighboring old maples, with the inscription: "Hanover - To her Confederate Soldiers and to her noble women who loved them, 1861-65." Listed on the monument's four sides are the names of those Hanoverians who served, were wounded, or martyred to "the cause."
Direct your attention now across the road to your left, past latter day structures and clumps of dogwood and oak. Between a grassy hill and a stand of birch and scrub pines, focus on the glimmer of white that reflects off the wooden siding of old St. Paul's Church. A chance wind may blow the branches to and fro, giving a glimpse of the spire on the steeple and the tops of gravestone markers dotting the cemetery.
Peripherally, you notice to the far left the stately structure of the Hanover Tavern. On this land stood the original tavern, or ordinary. Let your imagination run free, and imagine there groups of people deep in conversation. Look back in time, to October, 1763. Dissatisfaction is running deep in colonial Virginia. A novice lawyer destined to become the county's most famous native son is about to make history, and for anyone in Hanover, the place to be lies here, on a hill just north of the creek named Mechumps. The place to be is Hanover Courthouse.
On this court day, as usual, the two acre courthouse area is bustling with activity, but underneath the veneer of everyday business lies a brooding discontent. The settlers in Virginia, as in other colonies, are chaffing under Britain's rule. In Hanover County, matters are coming to a head, and the people's concerns will soon be given a voice. But to understand the circumstances surrounding this place in the mid-eighteenth century, we must go back to the beginning, the establishment of Hanover...
The First Parish is Planted
In the spring of 1607, three ships sailed from Blackwell dock in London, England: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. The explorers, some of them men of title, wealth and experience, others common laborers, landed in Virginia. After winding their way up the river they christened James, for their king, they set down the first permanent English settlement in the New World, Jamestown. The crew were industrious; in a little over a month their new home was marked by the construction of a triangular fort.
On June 21, Captain Newport and the other founders of the new Jamestown Colony held the first public church service. This inaugurated the Colonial Church of Virginia, an extension of the Established Church in England, also called the Anglican Church (later known as Episcopal). In a grove of oak and maple, a plank was nailed to two trees to form a pulpit, and logs were set in rows to form seats for the one hundred settlers. An old ship's sail was slung over the branches above the "chapel" to shield the congregation from the hot sun, then Reverend Robert Hunt preached the first sermon.
As waterways were the chief forms of navigation, exploration spread along the major rivers York and James, and their tributaries, the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and North and South Anna, bringing colonists to the area which is now Hanover County. This land held both Tidewater and Piedmont regions, and as such, benefited from rich lowlands with fertile marl, dense forests, and easily accessed water for transportation. It also was the domain of 10,000 native Indians: the powerful Powhatan Confederacy. The two different cultures existed uneasily, fluctuating between friendship and hostility, with some notable exceptions. Two relatives of the powerful Weroance, Powhatan, befriended the settlers. The story of the rescue of Captain John Smith, president of the Jamestown colony, by Chief Powhatan's daughter, Pocahontas, is world renown. The Chief's brother-in-law, Mechumps, also befriended the colonists, in a treaty forged in 1613. Intermittently, the Indians and settlers fought, and the warfare, along with increasing numbers of colonists, brought the virtual demise of the tribes in the area by 1680. A strong legacy of the Indian culture was obliterated by the renaming of many rivers, pathways and other geological sites by the early explorers, such as the name change from Powhatan River to James River, both titles in honor of their respective kings. Many of the new place names, in turn, were renamed once more after the Revolutionary War, for leaders of the new nation.
Birth of Hanover County
The Anglican Church held two functions: as the spiritual head of the colonists, it was the official religion of the colony. It also was the authority in social and civil matters. The Church received tax monies to build and repair churches and support the clergy. Usually, two hundred acres of land were set aside in each parish, for a minister's glebe.
The local growth pattern of the area was governed by the church. All of Virginia plus the present states of Kentucky and West Virginia were under the Diocese of London. As new settlements quickly spread they were contained by the accessibility of the church sites. Once the church site became too distant for families to attend services, a new parish with a church was formed. The parish boundaries were the geographic district markers, many times coinciding with the county lines.
What is now Hanover County was part of St. Peter's Parish, New Kent County. St. Peter's was divided , with the western portion designated as St. Paul's Parish. The divisions resulting in the formation of Hanover and surrounding areas were:
- Organization of the General Assembly of Virginia.
- Virginia divided into eight large shires: Accomack, Charles City, Charles River, Elizabeth City, Henrik, James City, Warrosquyoake (changed to Isle of Wight), and Warwick River.
- Charles River Shire, of which the Hanover area was part, changed to York Shire.
- Upper part of York County established as New Kent County (St. Peter's Parish)
- St. Paul's Parish formed from St. Peter's Parish
- Hanover County formed along same boundaries as St. Paul's Parish
- St. Paul's Parish divided by formation of Martin's Parish
- Louisa County formed from part of Hanover County
As St. Paul's Parish became more populated, chapels and churches were built. The first churches planted in any parish were close to the chief navigation routes. The mission of forming new congregations drove settlers further into the western wilderness, or up-river. Before St. Paul's Parish was formed, St. Peter's Parish ordered a chapel built on Mechumps Creek in 1702, on what is now Depot Road. The land belonged to John Kimbrough, who rented out his house "to preach in" in 1703. He later sold them the land for the Glebe as well. This congregation built Slash Church in 1729. In the Colonies, the church farthest up-river was known as the Upper Church, and the previous, the Lower Church. The Lower Church of St. Paul's Parish was built in 1718 in the Old Church area. The rector of the parish from 1737-1777 was The Reverend Patrick Henry, who was uncle to Virginia's finest orator and first governor, Patrick Henry. Slash Church (presently the oldest frame church in Virginia) was formed around 1730 as the Upper Church of St.Paul's Parish, named after that swampy area nearby known as The Slashes. Patrick Henry and Henry Clay are said to have attended services there. Fork Church (named for being built near the fork of the North and South Anna the Little and Newfound Rivers) began in 1735. Both still stand today.
On November 26, 1720, Hanover was designated a county. During a council meeting on the 6th of May, 1721, a sheriff and county clerk were appointed. (The actual beginning of the county governments often occurred in the year following the passage of the Act of the Assembly creating the county). The "Act for Dividing New Kent County" in the journal reads:
"Ordered that the Court House for the County of Hanover be held at the plantation of Robert Jennings; that the Court House be erected there and that the sheriff of the County be directed to attend the justices at that place."
John Perkins was the first to hold the position of sheriff. The first two representatives of Hanover to the Virginia House of Burgesses were Nicholas Meriwether and John Syme. James William Clayton held the first office of court clerk, and the day set for court day was the first Friday in each month. Hanover was now an established county.
Among those who were sheriffs of Hanover County are some of the forefathers of Hanover citizens of today:
Roger Thompson (1723-24), David Meriwether (1725-26), William Fleming (1727-28), Charles Hudson (1729-30), Christopher Clark (1731-32), David Crawford (1733-34), Peter Garland (1735-36), James Overton (1737), Richard Clough (1738), James Skelton (1739), Michael Holland (1740-41), James Skelton (1742-43), John Henry (1744-45), William Winston (1746-47) John Snelson (1748-1749), Essex William Winston (1750-1751). There are gaps in the information concerning later sheriffs, although it is known that the first under the Commonwealth in 1776 was Meriwether Shelton.
We do not know exactly where Robert Jennings' land was, or what kind of preliminary courthouse was built, although local lore is that it was a log building.
The original building of the Hanover Tavern, directly across Rt. 301 from the courthouse green, actually predates the courthouse. Records show that the ordinary was erected around 1723, and became a stopping-off place for people traveling from Philadelphia to Williamsburg. The owner, William Meriwether, founder of the town of Newcastle, built the Hanover Courthouse circa
1738 (it had been proposed in 1735), patterned after the courthouse building in King William County. The earliest part of the present tavern was built in the 1790's.
William Parks, who in 1736 founded the first official newspaper in the colony, the Virginia Gazette, bought the tavern from Meriwether, and it is through his Granddaughter, Sarah Shelton, that young Patrick Henry, the "Voice of the Revolution" became connected with the tavern.
Bazile, Leon M. "Hanover History" Herald-Progress. October, 1948
Colvin, Steven. A History of Hanover Court House, Virginia. Ashland: Herald Progress Printing, 1971.
Diamond, Nina. "The Historic Area of Hanover Courthouse." Virginia Country Life. June, 1978.
Hanover County Historical Society Bulletin. November, 1970.
St. Paul's Church, Hanover County, Virginia. The Vestry Book of St. Paul's Parish, Hanover County, Virginia, 1706-1786. C.G. Chamberlayne, ed. Richmond, 1940.